Every year, fans await the release of the NHL schedule—the one document that can help them allocate how to spend their winters as early as July.
The first date that every fan's eyes—no matter their loyalty—dart to on the schedule, is the date of the first game of the season, because whether their team is playing or not, that date means one thing.
Hockey is back, baby.
From there, the rivalry matchups get circled on the calender, road trips to go and take in as many NHL games as possible are planned based on team travel schedules and arena locations, and those overly confident fans that we all know have the last day of the regular season circled because they're certain their team is making the playoffs this year.
If you look deeper into the schedule, though, you can find a few matchups that mean a little bit more.
Of course you have the standard "jilted former-star facing off against his old team" (Saku Koivu welcomes the Montreal Canadiens to Anaheim March 7) as well as the most recent entry in the "Marian Hossa revenge tour" (the Chicago Blackhawks visit Detroit October 8), but there are a few that could cause a little more intrigue than that.
On January 26, fans at the Air Canada Centre get their first look at what could have been, when Brayden Schenn (potentially) visits with the Los Angeles Kings, or how about this for intrigue: The Phoenix Coyotes—the team that was rumored to be moving to Hamilton—are in Buffalo on October 8 to face off in what could've been a potential turf war, had the Coyotes ended up moving to Hamilton.
While all of those have sources of intrigue though, there's one game that fans will be keeping tabs on October 3.
For namesake, this is little more than a lopsided Atlantic Division showdown. The Islanders were the worst team in the NHL last season, while the Penguins proved down the stretch and into the playoffs they were the best of the best.
But it's the names on the marquee that'll have everyone watching.
It's a foregone conclusion that the Penguins are one of the NHL's biggest draws. With players adorned with the talents of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin leading the way, you'd be stupid not to want to see them.
But it's also the debut of a man who's almost expected to replicate Sidney Crosby's success: John Tavares.
Going back to when Crosby was drafted first overall in 2005, he was saddled with (what seemed like) impossible expectations: springboard the NHL out of the most disparaging lockout in recent memory; become the recognizable, world-wide star the league had lacked since the Lemieux-Gretzky days; and save the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Sidenote: For the purpose of this, we're not counting Mario Lemieux's "Hey I'm making a mid-2000s comeback." Fact is, Lemieux was remarkable when he was on the ice (229 points in just 170 games) in his comeback, but he was already known due to his first go-around.
That, and if it wasn't for that notoriety his injury problems would have left him about as popular as Marian Gaborik whose posters and jerseys only hang in the offices of hip-replacement specialists around the world. Thank you Marian.
That's not unlike what's expected out of Tavares.
The New York Islanders have slipped over the past decade, to a point where they're more pitied than respected around the league. Mike Milbury and his $13.76 haircut traded away the future of this team in mind-boggling deals, just so owner Charles Wang could have some strange, pickup basketball playing relationship with the superbly talented, but equally moody Alexei Yashin.
From there it seems that everything that once made the Islanders great has been squandered, be it through bad injuries, bad signings, or just bad luck.
Then there was that nasty Kansas City rumor that surfaced just after the end of the season.
If John Tavares wasn't seen as the turning point in all of this, then explain this.
But this matchup isn't just for Tavares to make his mark in the NHL and try to turn everything around.
It's for him to learn.
Last year, Leafs fans despondently looked for hope in what was expected to be a downpour of a regular season. We got it when we saw that the Leafs were opening the season against the defending champion Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena, because watching that banner ceremony should stick with the youngsters, and fuel their fire.
This year, Tavares will face off against Crosby, one of the bright young stars accredited with turning the NHL and the Pittsburgh Penguins' franchise around.
It's the success that Crosby has had in his first four NHL seasons that gives fans around the league hope with their bright stars. It's that success that helped blaze a trail for John Tavares.
While looking across the ice at Crosby, the former-London Knight and Oshawa General can see all of the experiences—good and bad—of being a first overall pick: the pressures, the countless detractors, and the nay-sayers weighing on one-side, while the well-wishers, the joy of NHL firsts, and the feeling of success through hard work sits on the other.
In four short seasons, Crosby has really experienced it all and, love him or not, he's done an excellent job of dealing with it for someone who's a month-shy of 22.
While Crosby received countless help from those around him (And the New York Islanders still need to build that support cast of Staals, Malkins, and Letangs) it always seemed to be his face at the front of it all, charged with saving the Penguins and leading them from obscurity.
And for someone who was and still is just a kid, he dealt with it every step of the way.
As the ink dries on Tavares' first NHL deal, he'll have each and every one of these experiences ahead: the joy of his first goal, the scrutiny of his first slump, and the constant eye of a franchise and fan-base in desperate need of a hero.
Like Pittsburgh once was. Like Sidney Crosby once was.
So, too, can the New York Islanders hope John Tavares will be.
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan you can do so through his profile, or you can email him at email@example.com You can also check out his previous work in his archives.
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